Johnnypost 5: open and close

I don’t understand how bloggers do it – I mean the ones who post about things they’re doing every day, as well as Tweet constantly (don’t get me started on Twitter). Monday the 1st of June had me racing around buying props and then pausing long enough for a root canal to deal the the searing tooth-ache I was suffering from Sunday. Tuesday and Wednesday were 10 out of 12s for me. Thursday we opened. Sunday we closed.

I eased into the technical aspect of the director’s job, and indeed the work we had done on the transitions paid off in spades. We could just focus on lights, sounds and slides. We didn’t get through the whole show cue to cue Tuesday, but finished on Wednesday and still managed two runs. The slides worked remarkably well – they were the design component everyone had the most questions about. I felt vindicated, as I had gently fought for them all along. They partnered beautifully with Chris and Teri’s music, and we spent some time figuring out how to time the live music with the slides, when the vocals drop in, etc. Tuesday night was bitter-sweet, as Matt, our gifted set designer, had to leave us to go to a wedding in Oregon, leaving us in the capable hands of his assistant, Kim.

The lights were fairly straight-forward. The one look I was never entirely satisfied with was the prison cell. The dimensions of the Playground, particularly its low ceiling, prevented Josh from creating the precise lines and boxes we wanted. He and I met Thursday for an hour to try and get some more front light in the cue, so Paul wasn’t completely lost.

The costumes were an issue. Not sure why. Poor Mark had to essentially create his own uniform by gluing the right ribbons etc. on the standard issue green jacket he was provided. Nothing fit terribly well. Marsha and Mandy contributed their own clothes, and I had to have Noah bring in a suit as a back-up because I wasn’t confident his “dress uniform” for the wedding would ever show up. It did, but the ties provided looked like something you’d wear for St. Patrick’s Day, so Thursday (opening night), I was racing up and down Chestnut Street looking black or dark green ties. My wife brought my dark green tie and Noah had his roommate bring in two black ties and we were saved.

This last-minute, everyone-pitch-in quality was an essential aspect of the production. Rather than being a burden, it seemed to make everyone feel empowered. Mark enjoyed doing the research on National Guard insignia and had a blast at the Army/Navy store in Downingtown picking out stuff to put on his hats and jacket. Marsha and Mandy looked great in the dresses they brought in and I think it might have personalized the story even more for them. Mostly, it cemented the collective ownership of the experience. By the time we opened, it very much felt like “our” show, not Bill’s and not mine. After the second run on Wednesday, I had the deeply satisfying sensation: my work was essentially done.

Bill became the main producer during this chaotic week, and would drop by to watch a bit before running off to pick up programs from printers, cut checks for people or deal with the ticket vender. “You get to do fun creative stuff and I’m stuck at Kinkos,” he lamented. The one significant change we made to his script concerned the very end of the play. As written, Bill had the song come back in for one line. We worked on this during tech and it felt heavy-handed; it felt overly sentimental. The end of the play is devastating as it is, it just didn’t need the song. Plus, Chris had composed these really wonderful, mysterious “tones” as he called them: haunting, humming notes in the distance each time the lovers appear to each other but aren’t really there (I can’t say enough about what his music, sound design and Teri’s voice gave to the show). Really, the ending was a knock out. But Bill wanted to see it as written for at least one show. We had a long talk about it, I being gentle and diplomatic, and promising that if he insisted, we would do as he wished, but that there was significant opposition to it in the company. After a night of sleeping on it, he relented.

At opening, we had a nearly full house and a critic from the Inquirer. This seemed unusual, since the paper usually doesn’t review plays that only run a week. Add to this that I have taken this critic to task publicly for being too nasty in her reviews, and you can imagine my concern. The first act went fine, if a little tight, and the second act flew. Much tears and some standing up at the curtain call. A big questions for me was, would the play have the same emotional impact on the audience as it had been having on us in rehearsal. And by and large, the answer was a resounding yes. By the weekend, I placed myself in the side seating sections and watched the audience as much as I watched the actors. Many people began crying at the bad news in act two, and remained emotional until the end. Sometimes the crying was audible in the pauses. And I feel bound to say that they laughed a lot too. I feel one of the play’s many strong suits is that there is so much humor in it. And I have always believed that a play which makes you laugh in act one, stands a much better chance of making you cry in act two.

During our five shows, we had many VIPs from the Philly theatre community come. We got a good review from Inquirer (thanks Toby!), and another from Edge Weekly (thanks Jim!). Bill understands where he wants to go in terms of re-writes and now, we wait and see if we get some interest from other quarters about it. But even if we don’t, there has been no failure. We accomplished so much in a short time. And in addition to the tears and standing Os, the comments we received from people we trust (“Maybe the best thing I’ve seen”, ”Restored my faith in theatre”, “Unbelievably good”) assured us we’re not deluding ourselves about this script, and our ability to produce it simply, beautifully, powerfully. On a personal note, I re-discovered my own skill as a director, and am proud of my work on this play. Yes, I can do this too.

Bill got word he is a MacDowell Fellow for the fall 2009 – much deserved. And me? I am contemplating the open space of summer, and the raising of children. In those open spaces, I am seeking discernment about about my calling: shall I start a theatre group called White Pines Productions, full of big ideas, novel approaches and no money? At 46, with two young children and a precarious financial state of affairs, it seems like an absurd thing to do. But I wonder: if I don’t, will I be followed around by regret for the rest of my life?
Johnny-post 5: open and close, originally published Wednesday, June 10, 2009